Josh Kim asked an excellent question this week: “Why does the shortage of employees in the country seem to exist everywhere except in higher education?” “
I remember wondering the same thing in the late 90s, during the first dot-com boom. The college liberal arts job market was brutal, even as Pets.com flourished. The disconnection is even more pronounced now.
But I would put some qualifiers on the question. From a community college perspective, some fields are easy to hire and others are much more difficult.
For example, last year we had three full-time nursing faculty positions. We had three candidates. This made the maintenance process relatively straightforward, but I admit with crossing my fingers that they would all be good. (They were. Phew!) We’ve been trying to fill a full-time automotive technician position for a year. We have carried out several searches for cybersecurity teachers, without success so far. Meanwhile, when we post a single position in English, we receive dozens of highly qualified applicants.
As far as I know, the common thread between hard-to-hire areas is the high demand from the industry (and the high wages that come with it). Nurses can make more money working as nurses than they would teaching for us, so we have to hope that the job is attractive enough to be worth the sacrifice. In contrast, in many humanities and social sciences there are not as many well-paying alternatives available.
In a collective bargaining environment, the need for pay uniformity between fields within the college collides with wild pay inconsistency in fields outside the college. I have repeatedly had the frustrating experience of seeing very interested and very attractive candidates walk away when they realize the seriousness of the pay cut they should be taking.
Surprisingly, this phenomenon – well known to practitioners in the field – is completely absent from most policy discussions on workforce development. If we want to prepare students in a field like cybersecurity – which we know is in high demand – then we need qualified teachers. People who are qualified to teach it can make a lot more money elsewhere. We would need significant and sustained increases in operating funding to attract and retain these people. And in collective bargaining, we would either need some sort of special category for certain areas or enough money to pay everyone across the areas that are most in demand. I can attest from firsthand experience that asking people who earn 200k in the field to come and work for us for 65k doesn’t work very often. As a result, the areas that many policymakers want us to stress the most are effectively excluded or capped at very small sizes. The economic warmth of these areas makes them more difficult to recruit.
That said, however, the original question still holds in many traditional academic fields. We know of many root causes: Baumol’s cost disease, the pyramid structure of higher education, public divestment and (in many areas) declining numbers of 18-year-olds come into play. , insofar as it reduces turnover. When you combine negative enrollment growth with consistently low turnover, slow hiring is a predictable outcome. Climbing walls and lazy rivers are red herrings. If these were important, community colleges would hire a lot. They are not. The same goes for âadministrativeâ expenditure. If that were the problem, community colleges – which have by far the thinnest administrative ranks – would hire heavily. They are not.
Culturally, part of the problem is the propagation of a version of market fundamentalism that is deeply skeptical of any unarmed state enterprise. Hiring is easy if you have the money to do it; the heart of the matter is that we have decided not to run money this way anymore. This inclination has ugly roots, but many of its followers do not know its history and have not thought about its effects. The most effective ideology is the one you don’t even know; you just take it as factual. You would think that twentieth century history would have warned people against absolutism, but market absolutism is alive and well. He survived the Great Recession and is often taken for “realism”. But this is a mistake, as absolutisms tend to be.
A more pragmatic version of realism might recognize that training people for high-paying jobs requires drawing instructors away from those high-paying jobs. It requires, well, high salaries, and these require funding. If we generalize from the English departments, we might not see it.
Kudos to Josh Kim for asking the right question. Hopefully we can somehow start making the question moot.